Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 645 - 659)



  Q645  Chairman: Welcome and as it is your first visit to this Committee, we are particularly pleased to see you and hope you are far enough into your job to be ready to answer all the fairly easy questions which we have got for you.

  Mr Alexander: Time will tell.

  Q646  Chairman: Perhaps I could begin by asking for your overall assessment of how the Government is doing in cutting carbon emissions, in particular where the Department for Transport is doing well and where you think it needs to improve its act?

  Mr Alexander: Thank you, Chairman. I am glad to accept the invitation. I think it is my first appearance before a select committee, you beat the Transport Select Committee to have me before the Committee, and I recognise that it was a commitment of my predecessor which I am happy to honour. Perhaps, with your indulgence, I could introduce my officials who are supporting me: Simon Webb who is the Director General for Delivery and Security; and Nigel Campbell, who is the Head of the Transport Analysis and Review Division at the Department for Transport. Perhaps if I could make a very brief introductory statement it would in part answer your question and also set the context for my later remarks. Dealing with climate change is perhaps the biggest long-term challenge that we face. That would be the first point I would wish to place on the record. It is a top priority for the Government and we have made this clear in the recently published joint Climate Change Programme, with which members of the Committee will be familiar. Much has already been done to tackle climate change. We are on track to do considerably better than our Kyoto commitment of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by over 20% against the target of 12½% below 1990 levels by 2008-12, although of course we are short against our domestic carbon target of 20% by 2010, and we will continue to work towards our long-term goal which is a 60% reduction in carbon emissions from current levels by 2050, which was recommended by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. My Department, the Department for Transport, of course shares ownership of the PSA target with the Department for Trade and Industry and with Defra and, as the Climate Change Programme underlines, we are working closely with other departments, and we plan to do more. In tackling climate change, we recognise that a strong and growing economy poses some considerable challenges, not least for transport. It does not matter where in the world carbon is emitted or by what means; the problem of climate change is global and therefore so too is the solution, which is why we set out in the Climate Change Programme a flexible approach to secure carbon reductions across the economy wherever they are most effectively made. This ensures that we are able to secure the most reductions for any given cost and with the least impact on growth. Good transport links, of course, are central to a prosperous economy. As economies grow, people tend to travel much further and more often than they used to. The key is for government to set the right framework for an effective transport strategy which also enables us to meet our environmental obligations on CO2 emissions. Our strategy focuses on four key areas and I talk, with your indulgence, very briefly about each of these in turn. Firstly, to reduce how much fossil carbon there is in transport fuel. Over the long term we want clean, low-carbon transport systems. An important step towards this is ensuring that a certain percentage of transport fuel sold in the UK is made up of biofuels. That is why we will introduce a renewable transport fuels obligation at a level of 5% in biofuels in annual sales by 2010. This will result in a net saving of about one million tonnes of carbon every year, the equivalent of taking one million cars off the road. Secondly, improving technology to make vehicles more fuel efficient. That means working closely with manufacturers to deliver cleaner and greener cars. Voluntary agreements with motor manufacturers have played a significant part in improving the fuel efficiency of cars. Since 1997 the average new car fuel efficiency in the UK has improved by some 10%. It is vital that the industry continues to push the boundaries of technology to come up with cleaner and more fuel-efficient vehicles in the years to come. Thirdly, encouraging people to be more aware of the environmental impact of the journeys they make and encourage them to make more environmentally friendly journeys. Yes, we are putting sustained investment into public transport to improve the reliability of journeys by rail, by light rail, by bus, and to give people a real alternative to travelling by car. We need to continue to help people make informed choices about when and how they travel, and what type of vehicles they choose to buy in the future. Fourthly, working towards including transport in Emissions Trading Schemes and using market mechanisms for environmental ends. This is something I worked on during my time in the Foreign Office as the Minister for Europe. In the United Kingdom we continue to push for a well-designed Emissions Trading Scheme to ensure that the aviation sector tackles its emissions. In time, extending emissions trading to other forms of surface transport, not just the aviation industry, could have a big impact on the reduction of carbon as well. In the longer term we need to look seriously at the fuels we are using to power our transport, which is why we have been piloting the development of hydrogen fuel transport. In conclusion to these brief introductory remarks, we are committed to tackling climate change. Government departments need to continue to work closely together. The industry and individuals also have key roles to play: it will be up to the industry to develop the technology and the cleaner vehicles; it is for individuals to think more about the environmental impacts of how and when they travel; and it is for government to set the right policy framework and ensure the right incentives are in place.

  Q647  Chairman: There are a number of important facts there and plenty of worthy sentiments. Can I just reiterate the question, however, transport is the only major section of the economy in which emissions have risen since 1990. They are continuing to be projected to rise and in the Climate Change Programme document published only a few weeks ago there is a continuing rise in carbon emissions from transport over the next 15 years, and possibly of course beyond that too. Therefore, where do you think the Department for Transport is doing well and where does it need to do better? It is not really a question of cutting emissions in transport; it is a question of restricting the rate of growth of carbon emissions in transport. Where are the opportunities and the threats?

  Mr Alexander: Your observation reflects the fact that there has been a fairly close correlation between emissions from transport and growth in the economy. Within that category of transport it is the case that aviation emissions have been rising of course faster than other parts of the transport sector. However, that notwithstanding, in terms of the review that was undertaken for the production of this document and indeed the policies that we now anticipate therein, broadly a quarter of the UK emissions result from the transportation sector and about a quarter of the anticipated savings in terms of carbon reduction are accounted for by measures for which the Department for Transport has responsibility. So I am alive to the concerns that you express, but I think in terms of the policy measures that we have taken it reflects the fact that we are seriously engaged on this issue with the Department. If I was to characterise the approach of the Department—and you will appreciate I am fairly new to the brief but this has been a subject in which I have taken a fairly close interest in recent weeks—I think our approach reflects the fact that a judgment was made by my predecessors, I believe the right judgment, to embed an understanding of environmental issues across the Department, rather than to say there should be, for example, a specific group of people whose sole task is to work on the environment and somehow the responsibility of the rest of the Department does not reflect the priority placed on the environment. I think it is important, particularly in a department like Transport, to embed an understanding of environmental considerations right across the Department, and that has been the approach that has been taken. Within the Department, if that is the approach, I think it is also critical, reflecting the cross-governmental approach that we have taken in recent years, that we are actively engaged as a department with other government departments given that we do believe that the solution to the environmental challenges that we face will not be met by any single government department but by each government department taking a share of the responsibility and working effectively to make sure that we have global solutions to what is inherently a global problem.

  Q648  Chairman: If the environmental issues really are embedded in the Department and if there was any substance to the comment in the Prime Minister's letter of appointment to you when he says: "in particular transport is critical to our long-term goal of reducing carbon emissions", that is what he said in his letter to you, why was it that the Annual Report from the Department this year did not mention the fact that carbon emissions are higher in transport than in 1990 and that this is the only sector from which emissions are projected to be higher still in 2020? If environment issues are really embedded in the way you describe, that is a pretty extraordinary omission, is it not?

  Mr Alexander: I would say that the best guide to the relative salience of the issue of the environment in terms of the Department for Transport is, as I say, to start from where the Government starts which is that we need a cross-governmental approach. If one examines the Climate Change Programme 2006 which has been recently published there is a section dealing exclusively with transport which we hold responsibility for but which has been developed along with other departments including Defra and the DTI. In terms of the letter of appointment that you refer to, that approach is reflected in the paragraph that follows the quotation that you offered to the Committee. It states that it will be very important that I "work closely in particular with David Miliband, Alistair Darling, and Ruth Kelly to ensure that our transport strategy is consistent with government policies in relation to the environment, energy and housing." In that sense, I can certainly speak for the terms of my appointment letter. It is reflected very clearly in the terms of that appointment letter that we recognise transport has a role to play but it is one of a number of departments who share that responsibility and share that obligation to take forward that agenda.

  Q649  Chairman: Given you do have responsibility for what is going on within your Department, are you surprised, for example, that there are no transport-specific targets for carbon emission reductions?

  Mr Alexander: No, because it reflects, as I sought to reflect in my introductory statement, the nature of how carbon moves around the atmosphere, never mind the workings of government, and explains the approach that we have taken. As a Government we have not seen it appropriate to set specific departmental targets; rather to say what are our global targets and then how most efficiently, in a way that secures both value for money and has least impact on the economy, can we secure the maximum savings. I think it is inherit in that approach that rather than saying there is a specific departmental or sector approach we look across not just the economy but each of the sectors of the economy and reach a common view. That is why I emphasise the fact that it is not simply important for the Department for Transport to understand the importance of this issue, but also to be working very effectively with officials and indeed with ministers from other departments to make sure that we have a joined-up approach as reflected in the Climate Change UK Programme in 2006.

  Q650  Chairman: If we take the issue of road charging, which is a rather sensitive one and therefore I am sure you have had some thoughts about this, why is it that the higher priority apparently in the Department's mind in road pricing is reducing congestion rather than cutting carbon emissions?

  Mr Alexander: Because I do not see the two areas of work as being exclusive. Of course, we have a growing problem in terms of congestion, and road pricing is one of the potential solutions to that challenge. I think it is important to recognise that congestion is already afflicting a large number of drivers, and a growing number of drivers in the country, and it is therefore right that we take forward the debate that was initiated by my predecessor, Alistair Darling, in discussing the feasibility of a national road pricing scheme. The approach that we have taken in taking forward that debate is not simply to engage in public debate and discussion of the issues but also to try and establish regional pilots which will allow on-the-ground experience to develop. It is no secret if one looks at the example of the congestion charge in London, that one of the essential ingredients of the experience of the congestion charge was an improvement in the public transport infrastructure and provision of services within London. My strong sense is that congestion charging will have to come to be seen, if it is to become acceptable not just to the motoring public but to the general public, to be part of a wider package of measures so that you address issues of network management but at the same time you give people genuine choices. If we were to have a discussion a year ago with 100 members of the public, few of them would have heard of road pricing. If we were to have the discussion today I think many of them would have heard of road pricing, but I am not sure that many of them would yet be convinced of the merits of road pricing. If we are to secure a consensus on the issue of road pricing, an absolutely key element of that will be being able to strengthen public transport, which of course has environmental impacts, and so in that sense while it is important to recognise road pricing's potential contribution to the challenge of congestion, I do not see it as being inimical to the work that we are taking forward in terms of carbon emissions.

  Q651  Chairman: But do you still feel, however, that the greater priority is reducing congestion rather than addressing climate change?

  Mr Alexander: I was aware of the evidence that was given by one of the previous witnesses to this Committee suggesting that climate change was not accorded a high level of priority within the Department. I can assure you, both on the basis of the work that we have been taking forward in terms of the Climate Change Programme 2006 and also the personal priority that I attach to this work, that it will remain a focus of work for the Department. In terms of the evidence I would bring to bear for the fact that we do take this issue very seriously, as I say, is while the transport sector accounts for about a quarter of the emissions, in terms of the projected savings set out in the UK programme about a quarter of those are accounted for by initiatives relating to the transport sector.

  Q652  Joan Walley: Could I press you a little bit further on that. I would not want you to be defensive on this but I was just wondering if you were coming into the Department and had a completely free hand about where the PSA targets should be, do you think that you would want to be moving towards getting PSA targets for your Department which really looked at carbon emissions as a priority?

  Mr Alexander: If one looks at the PSAs that I have inherited, there is a formal process of course, whereby in discussion with the Treasury as part of the Spending Review Process PSA targets—

  Q653  Joan Walley: But if you could start afresh.

  Mr Alexander: That would be a luxury which I am not sure any Secretary of State has ever previously enjoyed in terms of what is inevitably the on-going work of a department. Of course, PSA targets can be reviewed and it is appropriate that given changing circumstances they are periodically. I think the fact that we have a joint PSA both with the DTI and also with Defra reflects the fact that already there is an awareness that this is very central to the work of the Department but that this is not a challenge exclusive to the Department for Transport but one that we share with colleagues across government. In terms of assisting the Committee, if I could suggest that Simon say a word in terms of the joint analysis that informs the work that we do with the other departments. One of the opportunities I have taken in recent weeks is to gain a better understanding of how in practice the Department for Transport is working effectively both with Defra and with the DTI. While it would be straightforward for me to assert that there is a joint PSA target, one of the first questions that I was asking was in practical terms how does that affect the way that the Department actually works.

  Q654  Emily Thornberry: Before he does, I am really confused. I understand that you do not have a specific target in terms of "the Department for Transport will not have this target and we will not be responsible for the reduction of by a particular amount of carbon", but then you were talking about a quarter. I do not quite follow that.

  Mr Alexander: The reason I cited a quarter was to evidence the fact that not withstanding the fact that the sector of the economy for which the Department for Transport has responsibility does see a rising level of emissions, and it is right to acknowledge that aviation within that sector is rising more precipitously than others, I would dispute fundamentally the assertion that within the global target set for government that the Department for Transport does not recognise its responsibilities. So it is to evidence the fact that notwithstanding the fact that we have a global target, and reflecting the fact that we have worked collaboratively and effectively with other colleagues within government, if one then looks at where the carbon savings are anticipated to made contained within the UK programme there is a very significant proportion of that work which reflects the work of my Department.

  Mr Webb: If I can fill out how that works in practice because that may nail it down a bit. There are lots of senior bits of the inter-departmental structure in which I participate but the bit I would like to draw attention to for this purpose is that we have an inter-departmental analysts group which is centred on those three departments and has other supporting people. What they have been doing, particularly in the run up to the production of this, is to actually look at a range of options for carbon reduction right across government sectors, obviously concentrating on the responsibilities of those three departments and to use common analytical techniques to go through those things, to assess their effectiveness, to assess their cost, and to do peer review and check that we are all working in the same direction. It has been, in my view, one of the most powerful parts of the new working patterns that we have in place that we have as well as a joint political leadership, that sort of analytical underpinning which means that the measures we have got here, and I think you will see there is a consistency about the way this book is written, have been evaluated and put into the programme on a collective basis. I do think that gives us a better way of handling this than I have seen in many other countries, for example. On the Annual Report, since the Minister was not here, I would just say that the Annual Report is about last year. This is obviously a long-term programme. We have never disguised the fact that transport emissions are going up. We have an Annual Report where the report is done annually and there is a slight problem about the way the statistics come through on emissions that we do not get them until a bit later when we have closed down the Annual Report. Rather than get smacked by the Transport Select Committee for producing our report late, we tend to concentrate on the annual issues and obviously the statistics come out as a longer term issue separately.

  Q655  Joan Walley: I was just curious about the inter-departmental analysis that there is jointly with the other departments. As well as having analysis, have you also got some political means of having a cross-cutting Cabinet committee that is going to make absolutely certain that your Department does have this commitment towards the objectives and targets?

  Mr Alexander: Yes, the Cabinet committee on Energy and the Environment, EE as it is known in the trade, looks at the impact of government policies on sustainable development and the Cabinet sub-committee on sustainable development, EE(SD) in the trade, looks at improving government's contribution to sustainable development. I sit on the EE Committee, the Energy and Environment Committee, but again I think from my experience in government it would not be an adequate answer simply to assert that there is a structure there. There also has to be the will amongst the politicians to work collaboratively and to work effectively. I would cite a couple of points in response to that. Firstly, in the letter of appointment from the Prime Minister he personally charged me to work with Ruth Kelly, who clearly with responsibility for planning issues has a responsibility which impacts on the environment; with Alistair Darling, as the incoming Secretary of State for the Department for Trade and Industry, who are leading on the Energy Review in which we have taken a very close interest, as you would rightfully expect; and also with David Miliband, as the Secretary of State for the Environment. It is also no secret that David and I go back a long way and we have taken the opportunity even since we have assumed these briefs to talk about how we can work effectively together, given the risk that if there was not effective working between departments, you could have had a position which was more true in years past where the Environment Department had the responsibility but not the levers, and that is actually why I think this document reflects a different and more sophisticated approach which says we are first of all going to share global ambitions but we are going to work collaboratively to see where we can maximise the impact of our policies. On a personal level, I assure you that it is matter which I have already taken the opportunity to discuss with the incoming Secretary of State for the Environment. Indeed, I authored jointly an article with him reflecting the importance that I attach to the environment as the incoming Secretary of State for Transport. The formal structures are there and the political will from the very top of the Government is there that we do take forward that work. This is not some subversive initiative of two Cabinet ministers but rather reflecting the will of the Prime Minister that we work together. I think the mechanisms are there and indeed in the document produced very recently the joint working of the Department is manifest in the goals that we have set.

  Q656  Mr Chaytor: Just pursuing the question of targets, has your argument now had to change following the letter from the Minister of State for Climate Change this week which actually does set cross-government targets for CO2 emissions in each department's area of responsibility? So basically by virtue of this letter of 12 June you now have targets to meet in respect of the government estate. Presumably this is disaggregated department by department so you will have a target for carbon emissions from offices, a target for carbon emissions from road vehicles, and so on. Is it not inconsistent to say we do not need a departmental target for areas of policy as a whole but we have accepted or will be accepting a departmental target for our area of management and administration?

  Mr Alexander: I would not say that there is an inconsistency there because it reflects the different status and operation of a secretary of state effectively overseeing, along with the permanent secretary, the immediate estate within the control of the department from the policy levers which are available which impact not simply in terms of climate change priorities but also on issues of the wider economy and economic growth. I think it is perfectly reasonable to say that within the government estate, reflecting the announcement that was made by the Prime Minister and David Miliband earlier this week, that we do accept that responsibility specific to individual departments across Whitehall, but at the same time we recognise that the means by which we can best secure the goals that we have set for ourselves, as they impact not just on the economy but on wider society, is to take that wider view and then ensure that each of our departments bears its share of responsibility.

  Mr Webb: I might just say that the work on that was also done by a cross-government group. I happen to be the lead on the estate and on the transport target, for which we are particularly enthusiastic, as you can imagine, from transport. That was a joint production even though Mr Miliband sent it round.

  Q657  Dr Turner: Can I take you back to your logic of not having a transport-specific target. Given that we have a national global target for CO2 emissions and that transport emissions account for a very significant part of our global emissions, and if we are going to achieve our global target we have definitely got to reduce transport emissions, does it not make perfect sense to do some planning in this respect which means that you will end up with a target even if it is only an aspiration?

  Mr Alexander: I believe a better approach is to say how can we best secure against the targets that we have set the most effective—

  Q658  Dr Turner: But you have not.

  Mr Alexander: But we have as a Government and it is inherent in the nature of carbon distribution in the atmosphere, never mind the machinery of government across Whitehall, that whether carbon is emitted by a power station or by a vehicle exhaust pipe, its deleterious effect on the environment is exactly the same. That is why I think it is sensible to say where can we get the maximum return for the policies we are implementing as a government, recognising that we have to strike a balance between meeting our environmental obligations, and recognising other social and economic aspects of our work as a government.

  Q659  Dr Turner: That does not really answer the point because you could so easily have a situation, as almost is developing right now, where everyone else's cuts are outweighed by growth in transport emissions. So you have to address transport emissions. Indeed, you have gone some way towards that in practice by commissioning research which has led to the VIBAT study which suggests that you could cut UK transport emissions by 60% by 2030. That runs entirely in the face of not having a departmental target, so how do you square these things and what do you think of the VIBAT study? Do you think it is realistic?

  Mr Alexander: Let me take your questions in turn. Firstly, in terms of why do we not have a transport-specific target? Because what we are looking for is carbon reductions across the economy, and in that sense we believe that it is right to say that we should have an approach that says where can we secure the maximum benefit in terms of carbon reductions which may come from transport or may come from the work of other government departments. If one looks, for example, at the emissions generated by the five major power-generating companies within the economy, this is not a challenge alone for transport. I do not sit here as Transport Secretary denying that we have a share of responsibility, but I believe that the structure to approach this question is better to say let us have a general target and then let us work together to establish how we can most effectively meet it. You are right to recognise that the VIBAT study that you describe did look at a particular piece of work saying specifically a transport target and you have narrated the terms of that. That does not reflect the Government's policy and we have never affected that there was a transport-specific policy. It was indeed a different piece of work which was commissioned in order both to test methodology but also to inform some of the decisions that potentially we will make in the years to come. You can imagine in anticipation of my appearance before this Committee, I took a fairly detailed interest in why the VIBAT study was commissioned and the results that were produced. One could argue that it begs the question as to whether as a Department we should be commissioning long-term thinking of that sort, given that it does not reflect present government policy, but I do think a balance has to be struck here between being able to inform ministers and officials in the choices that are made and not then being characterised in front of even distinguished committees such as this as having policies which are not stated government policy. There were, of course, methodological differences with the VIBAT study itself which we would take issue with, but I do not deny the fact that the work has been done or indeed that it may inform further work that we do. If you would like chapter and verse in terms of why VIBAT does not reflect present government policy and also, for example, used presumptions in terms of the DTI model of economic growth rather than the DfT one, which is transport specific, I can share that information with you.

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